Kaul: "At 15 I did my first decathlon and after that I didn't want to do anything else"

Niklas Kaul
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Niklas Kaul won gold medals at the Gavle 2019 European Athletics U23 Championships and World Athletics Championships in 2019

We caught up with world decathlon champion Niklas Kaul from Germany for the fifth instalment of our #AtHomeWith series on Instagram Live which is presented by Jazmin Sawyers.

Joining us from Saulheim, Kaul talked about his hometown being temporarily renamed after winning gold in Doha, challenging the 80 metre-barrier in the javelin and why Ashton Eaton has been such an influence on his career.

If you missed the interview, you can also watch it back in full on Instagram TV

How are you doing and how have you spent the last few months?

I’m good! In Germany it was OK for us because we were able to go out and do running sessions alone in the forest. It was OK but it was not the normal training you do in March, April and May. In the end I worked on some things I’m not good at so it’s OK.

We have seen many new haircuts on social media in recent weeks. When did you decide the hair had to go?

It was four or five weeks ago and my girlfriend did this to me! When I first saw it in the mirror, I thought ‘now I look like a potato!’ Now it’s OK, it’s growing back.

How much has life changed for you since winning the decathlon title at the World Championships in Doha?

Life has changed so much. There was so much media after Doha but in training with the coaches and the other guys I’m training with, nothing changed. That’s really good as I prepare for the next few years. I think it worked out for Doha so I think we have to do the things we did before that to prepare for the Olympics.

There was a huge reaction back home and your hometown was even temporarily renamed! How did that feel?

Yeah, the name of my hometown is Saulheim and they called it Kaulheim for three or four weeks. It was kind of funny! I didn’t think about stealing the sign but that would have been a good idea!

How did you celebrate winning gold in Doha last year?

After Doha I didn’t have so much time to celebrate because there were so many things with the media going on and then we had to concentrate on the Olympics. We thought we only had seven months to build up until the qualification for the Olympics so there wasn’t so much time to celebrate or have a big party. Now the Olympics have been postponed, maybe we will have a big party after Tokyo?

Did you enjoy the media commitments and all the attention that came with winning gold in Doha?

I enjoyed it but I don’t think that’s what athletics is all about. It’s about going on the track and doing the things you love - the ceremonies, they are a lot of fun too but the big part is the training and the things on the track.

You had that huge throw in the javelin in Doha which put you in a good position for the title. What was going through your mind in the 1500m?

The only thing was ‘OK, in the first 400m I have to run at this pace and the next one at another pace,’ I wasn’t thinking I have to run four seconds faster than Maicel Uibo. I wanted to concentrate on myself and run as fast as I possibly can and then see what Micael and Damian Warner could do.

Were you nervous before the 1500m?

Yes, I was nervous, My heart rate was 180 between the javelin and the 1500m!

Do you usually get nervous before events?

I think you are nervous before the 100m because it’s the start of the decathlon and you don’t know how good you are and how good you are feeling and then before the 400m. It’s 50 seconds of pain and the next five minutes after the 400m are not the best time of your life!

The decathletes don’t like the 1500m - it’s a love hate relationship; we are not built for middle distance running, we are built for throwing and jumping and things like that.

But you are a really strong 1500m runner. Does that make the event easier?

When the pole vault is done, I know I have my best two disciplines and I can make up some ground on my other competitors. I think that helps me mentally after a not so good day one.

How did you feel when Kevin Mayer had to pull out of the decathlon in Doha?

I was at the discus when it happened so I didn’t see it so when we were able to go to the pole vault, Tim Nowak told me and my first reaction was it’s sad for him. I didn’t think of the personal advantage. In the end you don’t want any decathletes dropping out because it’s so frustrating - to work so hard all year and then having to drop out.

How difficult was it to adjust to the late sessions in Doha? Did you have to alter your training?

Not really. I’m usually going to bed at 2.00am and waking up at 9.00am so it was really good for me - better than having the 110m hurdles at 9.30am and when I want to sleep and not run the hurdles!

Would you like to see shorter, more compact schedules employed in other major events?

For me it was really good. Usually we have two or three events in the morning and two in the evening so I think it’s better for the athletes to have all five disciplines in a row so you have more time to relax and recover from day one to day two.

You have an unusual dietary preference. You like to fuel up on apple sauce in between events. When did you make the discovery?

It’s really good! You can eat it between events and each attempt. It makes it easy to stay energised.

I think it was in 2017 at the European U20 Championships. I think I did it for the first time there and it worked out quite good so I stuck with it.

How much of it did you get through in Doha?

It was like three kilograms for the two days and I didn’t think I would eat all of this. Usually you buy too much food for a decathlon - too much is better than running out but I think I ate all three kilograms of apple sauce. 

I can only eat it four days or six days a year when I am at decathlons and after that I’m not able to eat it for the whole year!

Combined eventers have a lot more kit to carry around than most athletes. Would your roommates describe you as a tidy roommate?

No! In the decathlon you are coming home after day one and you turn your bag upside down and put the stuff for day two inside. When you have two decathletes in one room, the room does not look great after two days!

You have said the postponement of Tokyo 2020 might play to your advantage as it will give you another season to focus on your weaknesses? Are you really disciplined about working on weaker events? 

I don’t like it but at the moment I know I have to do it to be prepared for Tokyo and better than the years before. The thing in the decathlon is we don’t have time - stability work, mobilisation and things like that. Now we have 14 months for Tokyo and now we are able to train these weaknesses and I think that is good for all decathletes at the moment.

Do you have a least favourite event to train for?

The 100m and 400m. The 100m is my weakest event so it’s not much fun when all your teammates are two or three metres ahead. It’s the event I don’t like.

How did it feel in Doha in the javelin when you saw 79.05m appear on the scoreboard?

At first, I thought now I have a chance to get the gold medal and ten seconds later I thought ‘damn, why not 80 metres?!’

I knew it was a good throw but I didn’t think it would be 79 metres and a personal best. It didn’t feel that good [when I threw it] and after the throw my coach said you are done with javelin which was a little bit frustrating because I knew I could throw 80m on that day but in the end this was the right decision because I didn’t want to get injured before the 1500m.

Is the 80 metre-barrier in the javelin a target?

Yes but at the moment we have to work on other events because in the end it’s all about how many points you can get in total. Now is the time when you have to work on your weak events to get more points in total. I hope I can throw 80 metres maybe next year or the year after but now we are working on other things.

Does having so much domestic competition in Germany motivate you to further improve the javelin?

Yes, for sure. We talk to each other and talk about what works in training and where everyone can improve; I think that helps the German javelin throwers to be the best in the world. 

Would you ever consider taking a season out to focus solely on the javelin? After all you won a medal in the event at the 2015 World U18 Championships!

Maybe after the Olympics in 2024 but at the moment when I concentrate on the javelin, it affects the training for the decathlon and not in a good way because you have to do a lot of weight training and you are getting heavier because you are not running so many times a week. I think that is not good for the decathlon when you throw 80 metres and 52 in the discus but only 5:20 in the 1500m.

When did you try out the combined events for the first time?

I started out when I was six years old with sprinting, jumping and throwing. At 15 I had my first decathlon and after that I said to my parents and coaches I don’t want to do anything else. In the decathlon you have a special relationship with your competitors and it’s more like a friendship - that helps me to stick with the decathlon. It’s different to all the other events.

How much of an influence has Ashton Eaton been in your career so far?

At first he was a big inspiration when he won the Olympic title in 2012 in London and then I met him in 2016 ahead of the World Indoor Championships. He told me how he prepares for a big competition and I learnt a lot from those couple of days. Without Ashton, I don’t think I would be the competitor I am today.

What would you say is your key to success?

It is consistency, this is the key. Not pushing the limits one month and then being injured for the next two or three. It’s consistency through the year and this is by key to success.

How do you cope with your mental health when things aren’t going quite so well?

When things are not going well, I focus more on university stuff - something different just for a while and that helps me. Also, talking to coaches, talking to parents - what went wrong over the last couple of weeks so you can be better in the end.

How do you find combining athletics with your studies?

I think I need to do something different sometimes because when a session didn’t go as planned or you are a little bit ill and don’t feel so good, it’s really good to have something different and just to think about something else. I think it helps to get me through the winter - in summer it’s all good but in the winter it’s frustrating when you are only training and it doesn’t feel that good when you are in heavy training and your body just hurts.

If athletics didn’t exist, which sport would you do?

Handball. I played handball until I was fifteen and I think I’ll go back to that after my athletics career.